A Bull Beneath the Stars

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Clouds of hot breath in the frost

I have sold my bull.

We struck a deal on Thursday, and arrangements were made to collect Caerlaverock Dominic at first light the following morning. A thick frost fell overnight. I picked my way up the hill beneath a gallery of stars and exchanged my car for a quad bike. The shed door rolled back on its runners as a dozen wigeon came pouring past overhead. They had come from inland and now rushed down to the Solway to roost, whooping like Apache outriders. It was six thirty.

Dominic had to be ready for the lorry in less than an hour. The cattle pens were open to receive him, but he was three fields away on unfamiliar ground. I had moved all the heifers through with him at dusk the previous evening, but these fields are rough, broken and covered in gorse. My first challenge would be to find the beasts in the dark.

I clasped a half-filled bag of beef nuts between my knees and trundled out from the shed into the cold blue fields, feeling my way in the darkness. A cold yellow glow provided backlighting to the Lake District – the shapes of Skiddaw and Buttermere glowered over the Solway as I gained altitude and paused to open each gate in turn, leaving dark fingerprints in the icy bars. I reached the fields where Dominic had been left and began to shout and shake the bag of food. The old boy is a sucker for beef nuts, and the sound of a rattling bag is enough to set his pulse racing.

The quad bike rolled to a halt, and suddenly I was surrounded by animals – great broadsides of black, steaming hair beneath the stars. The cattle moved half-seen around me, silhouetted against the Solway; black shapes breathing sweet cud into the stillness. Folds of landscape conspired to hide every spark of electric light so that aside from the quad bike, this scene might have been playing out in the sixteenth century. Dominic nosed his massive muzzle into my hip, and I recalled a sudden sense of fear – bulls are not friends, and even the gentlest movement can crush human bones.

The beasts were keen, and I nosed the bike ahead and began to shout and rattle the bag. They took the bait and crowded behind me, but some freak of excitement and enthusiasm spurred their interest into an avalanche. Dominic tossed his head and began to stampede down the hill. I picked up speed and he came along too, puffing and rollicking along beside me. The heifers joined him, and they fed on his excitement; they kicked their heels and rolled their eyes until the frozen soil fairly rumbled beneath them. Clods of icy mud flew against the stars; I was driving inside a heaving mass of living meat – four tons of beef bellowed and rumbled within arm’s reach.

On the final stretch to the pens, the pre-dawn landscape opened out before me in the gloaming – a rolling spread of gorse, oak wood and white moorland for thirty miles. I shouted and cheered the beasts on, finding that I could almost have cried with delight. These were my animals; my galloways, and this was my landscape; my Galloway. I was drawn to farming for so many reasons, but I can’t deny the appeal of belonging; of driving my fingers into the soil and fitting inside a mechanism I have loved all my life. The beasts ran head of me, and soon I was pouring their feed into a trough in the pens. The trap was closed, and they milled happily around me in the muck as I closed the gate and prepared for the cattle lorry.

Daylight came slowly, and I had time to drink coffee from a flask as the darkness finally fell away. A goshawk had been working up the edge of the forest, and crows gathered nearby to pour abuse on the invisible hunter. Robins tinked through the brambles, and a raucous wren raged in the sloes.

At last the lorry came, and I climbed into the pen to push Dominic on towards the lowering gate. This bull is easy to work with, but he needs a careful hand. He turned at one stage and looked set to come back on me, but the lorry driver hopped round to join me and soon the bull was clattering up the ramp. Fear is not a requisite of farming, but there have been several moments in the last six months when I have been genuinely afraid – primarily of heavy machinery, but also of livestock. I have always occupied a world where fear is a strange thing; I am a wimp, but now I relish this buzz.

A bundle of cash crinkled in my pocket – payment for the driver, and a reminder that this is more than just a bit of fun. Passports and documentation were passed into the lorry’s cab, and Dominic began his journey through a network of links and connections which would ultimately bring him to his new home in Oxfordshire. The lorry driver would then head on to Devon. I realized that I had become a pin in the map – a participant. It was a tiny arrival.

I have craved a sense of engagement with this landscape – a hands-on relevance which makes me more than just a visitor, an onlooker or a tourist in my own home. Here was a glimpse of what that might be like; an active sense of belonging in a working, living landscape. I didn’t rush off to work as the sun finally rose and burnt the frost off the rushes; I was already working – working with ancient animals in an ancient landscape. I had made extraordinary progress.

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